The rioting in the Northern, predominantly Muslim city of Kaduna that forced the organisers to withdraw the Miss World competition has brought into question once again the viability of the project called Nigeria. The riots themselves were triggered by a newspaper article suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the presence of the beauty queens, and perhaps chosen a wife or two from among them, but that was just an excuse. Anything can – and does – ignite a riot in Kaduna, and there were Muslims who’d been itching for a showdown ever since Nigeria was chosen to host the event. It was an irresistible opportunity to show the world the kind of religious intolerance that led the deputy governor of Zamfara to issue a fatwa against Isioma Daniel, the journalist who’d written the offending article, days after the riots, as though enough blood hadn’t already been shed: the death toll was more than two hundred at the last count.

I saw this intolerance for myself when I travelled around the Sharia states last March. I took to asking the (invariably male) Muslim journalists I met how death by stoning – the prescribed punishment for adultery – would actually be carried out. Two women, Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, had become pregnant in the absence of their estranged husbands and received the prescribed sentence (though the former was soon to be acquitted on a technicality). Most of the journalists ducked the question and I didn’t blame them. They would have automatically assumed that, as a Christian and a Southerner, I was hostile to this latest manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism, even if my manner hadn’t given me away. At the same time, in keeping with Islamic injunction, they were reluctant to be rude to a visitor. Only one, a tall, ascetic man in his fifties employed by one of the publicly funded state radio stations to ‘enlighten the people on the ethics and tenets of Islam’, came right out and said that the person to be executed would be buried in a pit up to their neck, whereupon the faithful would gather round and throw stones. I asked whether the stones would be of a particular size and weight but he couldn’t say, although he supposed that they would have to be heavy enough to do the job reasonably quickly and avoid any ‘unnecessary suffering’. I asked whether he would take part and he said yes, he would, but quickly added that he doubted whether the sentence would actually be carried out, that even in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, the practice had either been abolished or was in the process of being abolished – which was as maybe but hardly the point.

That the imposition of Sharia discriminates against women has been a source of international outrage, notably in Italy, where the condemned Husseini was adopted by the national football team in the run-up to the World Cup. The alleged father of her baby didn’t have to do anything more than protest his innocence, because, as the judge put it, ‘a man is not a woman, whereby she will have a protruding stomach to show.’ For a man to be found guilty in this sort of case, four male witnesses are required to have seen ‘the penis inside the woman’s vagina’. Needless to say, there were no such witnesses. The 40-year-old local government worker accused of fathering Lawal’s child was known by everyone in the village to be sweet on her, though the prospect of being stoned to death was enough to make him deny that they had done anything more than hold hands: ‘Yes, I agree that she was my girlfriend but I never had any sexual intimacy with her.’ He was even willing to cast the first stone: ‘I cannot plead for her pardon because I will be going against the law of Allah . . . Since she was found guilty and already a death sentence has been passed, it should be executed as directed.’ Perhaps to show that he wasn’t a complete rat, he added that she was ‘a nice woman’ who was merely ‘unfortunate that this thing has happened to her’ – cold comfort to her younger brother, who never doubted the guilt of the government worker. ‘The man was declared innocent because he swore on the Holy Koran,’ the brother remarked. ‘There is no truth in it. Now there is a death sentence hanging on the neck of my sister, while the man who impregnated her has gone scot-free.’

Not that all men could salve their consciences so easily. In one pathetic case last August, two lovers were sentenced to stoning when the father of the pregnant woman, angered by her boyfriend Ahmadu’s refusal to do the decent thing, took the matter to the authorities. The last thing he wanted was to punish Fatima, his daughter, who was now ‘spoiled’, but he was eager for Ahmadu to pay the price. The police obviously know the quickest way to obtain a confession, and Ahmadu came clean, much to the father’s relief, but everything went horribly wrong when the case finally went to court and the judge, applying what he presumed to be the letter of the law, sentenced both parties to five years’ imprisonment or a fine of N15,000 (£75), and then, a fortnight later, changed his mind and sentenced them to death by stoning, in line with the new Sharia law. The distraught father, who claimed that he had bribed the judge to swing the case his way with the little money he could scrape together, could only regret his decision: ‘I have left everything to God. They should release my daughter for me. I thought that the court was going to solve the problem . . . but, instead, it has spoiled it.’ The judge, who refuted the allegation of bribery, had little sympathy for the father: ‘I believe he knew what he was saying and the consequences. His head is correct. I asked the boy too whether his head was correct and he said yes. I also asked . . . Fatima and she said her head was correct.’ Besides, he pointed out, ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse.’

Yet his own familiarity with the law left much to be desired. In the first place, Section 388 of the Penal Code, which deals with extramarital sexual intercourse, stipulates ‘imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or a fine or both’. In the second place, it was illegal for the same judge to retry his own case in the absence of a judicial review.

Unfortunately, this cavalier approach is the norm in the area courts in the North. Husseini was sentenced to stoning even though Sharia had not actually been enacted into law at the time she committed her ‘crime’. (It’s on these grounds that the decision was overturned; Lawal’s lawyers are currently using the same defence.) Area courts, which now account for about 80 per cent of all cases in Nigeria, were originally established by the colonial authorities to adjudicate in civil cases between Muslims involving only Muslim personal law. They were never intended to exercise jurisdiction in criminal matters, which was the preserve of the common law courts inherited from the British. The ambiguity of the area courts in the North has been compounded by the introduction of Sharia, the Constitutional legality of which is itself in doubt.

The current Constitution of the Federal Republic – the keystone of the latest democratic experiment, begun in May 1999 after 15 continuous years of military rule – followed all previous Constitutions in guaranteeing Nigeria’s secular status. In other words, it recognises the country’s complex ethnic and religious make-up, and in Section 10 forbids the adoption of any religion as a state religion. Within months of the new dispensation, however, one Northern House of Assembly after another voted to incorporate Sharia into its legal system. Twelve of the country’s 19 states have now done so. In others, where Animists and Christians predominate, there have been violent clashes. President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a Christian and a Southerner, hardly helped matters by claiming at the outset that the enthusiasm for Sharia would soon ‘fizzle out’ and was best ignored, but there isn’t much he can do in any case, given that he owes his Presidency to the North, whose politicians reluctantly conceded power to a Southerner they felt they could trust in order to prevent another civil war. Sharia, which was never an issue under previous Northern rulers, now became a crude way to demonstrate the limits of Obasanjo’s power. The Supreme Court, which has ultimate jurisdiction over Constitutional matters, has refused to give a ruling on the status of Sharia, although the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, also a Christian, also a Southerner, took it upon himself to circulate a letter to the relevant state governors declaring it illegal on the grounds that it infringed the rights of Muslims by subjecting them ‘to a punishment more severe than would be imposed on other Nigerians for the same offence’.

This clever but pointless piece of legalism was duly ignored: within a week, Amina Lawal’s sentence was confirmed in Katsina (the very day Safiya Husseini’s sentence was quashed in Sokoto). Five months later, the Governor of Niger refused to intervene on behalf of Ahmadu and Fatima because, in his own words, theirs was ‘a purely judicial matter’, and ‘the rule of law must take its course.’ Three other people, all of them men, currently face death by stoning: Attahiru Umaru, for raping a seven-year-old boy in Kebbi; Mallam Ado Bamanda, for raping a nine-year-old girl in Jigawa; and Yunusa Rafiu Chiyawa, for raping a married woman he abducted from her home in Bauchi. The fact that these last three are criminals, not to say male, has meant that their cases have passed unnoticed by the outside world. This is not lost on many of the journalists I spoke with, who seized on their invisibility to berate the ‘Western hypocrisy’ that threatens war against Iraq for defying UN resolutions, while Israel routinely ignores them, or which turns Husseini into an honorary citizen of Rome following her acquittal while rounding up Nigerian prostitutes in Italian cities and deporting them.

To date, only the poor have suffered amputation of the limbs, the prescribed punishment for theft: the right hand on the first count, the left foot on the second, the left hand on the third, the right foot on the fourth, although provision is made for cross-limb amputation – right hand, left foot – in particularly serious cases. The first victim was Ibrahim Jangedi from Zamfara, who lost his right hand for stealing a cow worth N5000 (£25). He was followed by Lawal Isah, also from Zamfara, for stealing three bicycles. Currently, a third man, Bello Garba from Sokoto, is facing the loss of his right hand for stealing a donkey, worth half the price of a cow. The former military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, is yet to account for the US$12.2 billion in oil revenues that went missing in the course of his unelected tenure which ended in fiasco in 1993, when he annulled the democratic elections he had organised in order that his deputy and long-time fellow coup-plotter, General Sani Abacha, might also indulge in an embezzlement spree. In ‘retirement’, Babangida has made no attempt to hide his fabulous wealth, as I saw for myself when I passed through Minna, the capital of Niger state, where his hilltop mansion – imported Italian marble throughout – mocks the mud-built slums below. There are those who see his involvement in the agitation behind Sharia as part of a convoluted plan to prepare for his second coming. Perhaps they are right. It is certainly the case that he made the first attempt to take Nigeria into the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in the late 1980s at the behest of Saudi Arabia, a country he is known to visit regularly (he is a devout Muslim).

Saudi interest in Nigeria, which has more Muslims as well as more Christians than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, was apparent in Sokoto, the seat of the Caliphate, where the state government received N520 million (£2.6 million) to build an Institute for Koran and General Studies. The Institute was opened by the chief imam of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, who confirmed that ‘Saudi authority is behind the Institute and will do everything possible to upgrade its standard.’ I was unable to establish whether the Saudis are also behind the colleges of Islamic Legal Studies in all the nine states I visited, including Jigawa, where the sole state-owned television station relays programmes from the English-language service of Saudi TV. For all this, the North continues to lag behind the South in literacy rates, a problem which exercises its more enlightened leaders, including the country’s Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, who complained that only four of the states had adhered to the Agenda for Action formulated at the beginning of the new ‘democratic’ dispensation in allocating 26 per cent of their budget to education.

The result can be seen in the bus stations of all the state capitals, where the al-Majiris, teenage boys attached to Koranic teachers, go about begging for their daily bread. These boys, who are required to learn the Koran by rote in Arabic, a language that isn’t spoken in Nigeria, usually hang around in groups of a dozen or so, barefoot and in rags, or trail behind a teenage female hawker in search of devout travellers anxious to fulfil the Islamic injunction on charity. The girls themselves, some as young as 12, with kohl-rimmed eyes and painted lips that flash gold whenever they smile, sell more than bean cakes, sugar cane and oranges. One of them, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, was charged in Zamfara with engaging in premarital sex and bringing false accusations against three men she said had slept with her. She was found guilty and sentenced to 180 lashes. The punishment was administered before her appeal was heard, despite the lack of a ‘protruding stomach to show’, and in the absence of even one of the men she was supposed to have slept with.

One perverse feature of the Islamist obsession over who is having sex with whom and why, is the lack of concern about Aids, to say nothing of unwanted pregnancies, which are flourishing in Nigeria. It doesn’t take long to notice the scarcity of billboards advertising condoms, while the publicly funded radio stations are apparently forbidden to inform their listeners about the advantages of safe sex. I was told this would only encourage men to patronise ‘illegal’ women, which was un-Islamic, like so much else.

Daily readings from the Koran occupy well over 10 per cent of airtime on every station, in contravention of the National Broadcasting Commission rules. Not every journalist approves of what is going on, but there is little they can do if they want to continue working in states without alternative radio stations and where the few existing weekly newspapers – one in Sokoto, one in Kebbi, one in Zamfara – are dedicated to the re-election of the state governor. In Zamfara, the first state to adopt Sharia, a newly constituted Ministry of Religious Affairs ensures adherence to the party line. The Ministry’s information officer, a bearded man in a flowing white robe, gave me a selection of pamphlets. One, written by a former Christian from Canada (a fact that was loudly flagged), discussed whether or not it was permissible for a woman to show her hands and face in public. Scholars were quoted for and against but in the end the author, being a Canadian, came down firmly on the side of the liberals. Zamfara, which borders the Sahel, is a poor state with few resources, yet the three-storey Ministry was able to fund an entire office for the ‘moon sighting committee’, which didn’t open its doors in the time I was there, presumably because we were still a fair way from Ramadan (which was, incidentally, when the beauty queens were expected).

The waste of money in states that depend entirely on the Federation Account – that is to say, petrodollars from the South – is sometimes shocking. In Kebbi, for instance, one sees almost as many camels as people; yet the state government gave each of Kebbi’s four emirs a limousine for their personal use at a total cost of £600,000, in addition to paying the monthly salaries of all thirty chief imams. As with Sharia, the reason is political: these men have the power to make or break politicians. Women constituents don’t count of course, as the following comments from independent monitors around the North at the last elections make very clear: in Sokoto, ‘there was . . . a problem in inking the voter’s left thumb nail’ because ‘the culture of the area does not allow an adult male to touch a married female voter’; in Kaduna, ‘married women don’t normally come out to the polling station’ and ‘are usually represented by their husbands’; in Kano, ‘only seven women showed up for accreditation and polling’; in Kebbi, ‘the people of the area have a kind of tradition of voting for their wives, depending on the agreement reached between the agents of all the parties’; in Zamfara, ‘no single woman came for voting.’ Women are not represented in the Houses of Assembly that pass the laws which would stone them to death for what they do in private. That a woman will sooner or later suffer this gruesome fate is not in doubt. Obasanjo has washed his hands of any responsibility in the matter of Amina Lawal. He simply hopes she ‘will escape Sharia law’, but adds that, if she doesn’t, ‘I will weep for myself, I will weep for Amina Lawal, I will weep for Nigeria.’ The sentence is due to be carried out next September, after she has weaned the fruit of her sin, but as a correspondent wrote to one of the newspapers in the South, ‘Amina must not die. To allow this to happen in Nigeria will be a national calamity.’ Quite so – with Obasanjo himself among the tearful sympathisers.

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